Sir Isaiah Berlin
1909 - 1997May he rest in peace!
"Peace, peace! he is not dead, he doth not sleep!
He hath awaken from the dream of life!"
Percy Bysshe Shelley
"A Great Man in a Grim Time"
by Arthur Schlesinger
Obituary from the "New York Times""Isaiah Berlin, 88, Philosopher and Historian of Ideas"
November 10, 1997
By Marilyn Berger
Sir Isaiah Berlin, the philosopher and historian of ideas, revered for his intellect and cherished for his wit and his gift for friendship, died on Wednesday night, November 12, 1997, of a heart attack in Oxford England. He was 88.
A staunch advocate of pluralism in a century in which totalitarians and utopians claimed title to the one, single truth, Sir Isaiah considered the very notion that there could be one final answer to organizing human society a dangerous illusion that would lead to nothing but bloodshed, coercion, and deprivation of liberty.
Sir Isaiah defied classification. One of the leading scholars of the 20th century, he was also a bon vivant, a sought-after conversationalist, a serious opera buff, and an ardent Zionist. He shattered the popular concept of the Oxford don surrounded by dusty books and dry tutorials. His was an exuberant life crowded with joys -- the joy of thought, the joy of music, the joy of good friends. Sir Isaiah seemed to know almost everyone worth knowing in the 20th century, among them Winston Churchill, Sigmund Freud, Nehru, Igor Stravinsky, Boris Pasternak, T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, Chaim Weizmann, Virginia Woolf, Edmund Wilson, Aldous Huxley, Bertrand Russell, and Felix Frankfurter.
Sir Isaiah liked to say that his reputation was built on a systematic overestimation of his abilities. In fact, his reputation rested securely on his lectures and essays -- a cornucopia of western philosophical and political thought involving inquiries into the nature of liberty, the search for Utopia, the misconceptions of the Enlightenment, the innate human yearning for a homeland, the roots of nationalism, the underpinnings of fascism.
His best-known essay in the United States, "The Hedgehog and the Fox," a 1953 study of Tolstoy's view of history as embodied in "War and Peace." is regarded as a classic of political inquiry and literary criticism. Taking his title from the Greek poet Archilochus ("The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing"), Sir Isaiah's essay was a study of the mind and the work of Tolstoy but went beyond that to became an exploration of his own central themes about the place of the individual in the historical process and the struggle between monism and pluralism.
In this essay, which became part of a great body of work by Sir Isaiah on Russian thinkers of the 19th century, he drew a distinction between two human types: those, like the fox, who pursue many ends, often unrelated, even contradictory, and those, like the hedgehog, who relate everything to a single universal organizing principle. He saw Tolstoy as a fox who wanted to be a hedgehog. He considered Aristotle, Goethe, Pushkin, Balzac, Joyce, and Turgenev to be foxes. Plato, Dante, Pascal, Proust, and Dostoevsky were counted among the hedgehogs.
Sir Isaiah's 1959 essay, "Two Concepts of Liberty," is considered a major contribution to political theory. In it, he made a distinction between negative liberty, that which the individual must be allowed to enjoy without state interference, and positive liberty, that which the state permits by imposing regulations that, by necessity, limit some freedoms in the name of greater liberty for all. He argued that both kinds of liberty were required for a just society.
To his philosophical and historical work, Sir Isaiah added elegant profiles of great figures. For him, ideas could not be divorced from people and their psychological and cultural milieu. If thinking thoughts was his chosen line of work, people were what he called his "scenery."
Sir Noel Annan, who wrote the introduction to his 1980 book, "Personal Impressions," observed: "Nobody in our time has invested ideas with such personality, given them a corporeal shape and breathed life into them more than Isaiah Berlin; and he succeeds in doing so because ideas for him are not mere abstractions. They live ... in the minds of men and women, inspiring them, shaping their lives, influencing their actions and changing the course of history."
At each stage of his life, whether young or old, acquaintances remember him as having the look of "indeterminate middle age," bespectacled, baldish, of medium height. In his conversation as in his writing -- which he mainly dictated so it carried the full flavor of his voice -- Sir Isaiah's sentences were constructs of dazzling erudition, built clause upon clause, wisdom intermixed with anecdote, quotations, historical parallels, and flashes of wit. Sir Isaiah was so beguiling a conversationalist that when Prime Minister Harold MacMillan nominated him in 1957 for the queen's list he noted that the knighthood should be bestowed "for talking."
Not everyone understood what he was talking about, for he spoke with extraordinary rapidity, his tongue barely able to keep up with his thoughts. His English bore the traces of his native Russian, and, in his later years, he suffered from a paralyzed vocal cord that did not slow him up but rendered some words indistinct. But even before this affliction, when he met Harold Ross of The New Yorker, Ross told him. "I don't understand a word you've said, but if you have something to publish, I'll publish it."
As for his writing, much of it might have been left lying in the basement of Headington House, his elegant Queen Anne residence in Oxford, had an enterprising young graduate student not come along to gather it together. Sir Isaiah's lectures were often not published and his essays were scattered in so many magazines and journals that his body of work was inaccessible to most people. Henry Hardy, the graduate student, set out to collect it in four volumes that became five: "Russian Thinkers"( 1978); "Concepts and Categories" (1978); "Against the Current" (1979); "Personal Impressions" (1980) and "The Crooked Timber of History," (1990) In addition, Sir Isaiah was the author of five other books: "Karl Marx," (1939); "The Age of Enlightenment" (1956), "Four Essays on Liberty " (1969); "Vico and Herder"( 1976); and "The Magus of the North: J.G. Hamann and the Origins of Modern Irrationalism" (1993).
Until the publication of the Hardy collections, Sir Isaiah had been known as a man who talked much but wrote little and had, in fact, been taken to task for not producing a major opus, a failing attributed to his reluctance to sit at a desk in front of a blank piece of paper. But Sir Isaiah said he gave no thought to leaving a legacy and insisted that he had no interest whatsoever either in his reputation or in what people would say about him after he died. Sitting in his London flat for an interview during his 87th year, he said: "I really am very unambitious. I'm underambitious, if anything. I've never, never aimed at anything. I didn't shape my life. I did simply one thing after another. When opportunities arose, I took them. It's an unplanned life, essentially." When it was suggested that he was known as a man who took great pleasure in intellectual life, he said, "I take pleasure in pleasure."
Among the opportunities that he grasped which afforded him many pleasures were assignments in Washington during World War II, Moscow just after the war, and a long association with Oxford. But underlying whatever he did was his belief in the overriding importance of ideas. "When ideas are neglected by those who ought to attend to them -- that is to say, those who have been trained to think critically about ideas -- they often acquire an unchecked momentum and an irresistible power over multitudes of men that may grow too violent to be affected by rational criticism," he wrote in "Two Concepts of Liberty." He added: "Over a hundred years ago, the German poet Heine warned the French not to underestimate the power of ideas: philosophical concepts nurtured in the stillness of a professor's study could destroy a civilization. ... If professors can truly wield this fatal power, may it not be that only other professors, or, at least, other thinkers (and not governments or congressional committees) can alone disarm them? Our philosophers seem oddly unaware of these devastating effects of their activities."
Isaiah Berlin was born in Riga, Latvia, on June 6, 1909, the son of a successful timber merchant and landowner and the grandson, on his mother's side, of a Hasidic rabbi of the ecstatic Lubavitch tradition. His family moved to St. Petersburg where he was an eyewitness to the Russian revolution. The family then emigrated in 1921 to London, where it had business interests. As a boy, Isaiah, then known as Shaya, had some religious education, although he said he found the Talmud a "very, very boring book. I could never figure out why I should care why the bull gored the cow." He continued his religious education in London, where he had his bar mitzvah.
He thought of going to Westminster School but a teacher suggested to him that with a name like Isaiah he wouldn't "be comfortable" there. He dealt with it simply by attending St. Paul's instead.
"I never was at the head of a single class," he remembered. "I was fourth, fifth, seventh, or eighth. But this didn't bother me. Once, when I tried very, very hard, in my last year at St. Paul's, I was second. My parents thought I could do a little better, but they didn't bully me, either. I was a very happy child." When he tried to get into Balliol at Oxford he was told he wasn't up to its level, but he managed to get a scholarship to Corpus Christi. "After that," he said, "I got a rather bad first class in 1931" in humane letters. "Then I did another course and got a better first," in philosophy.
He said he had no idea what to do with himself when he finished school. He said he couldn't be a doctor because he knew no science. He couldn't be a civil servant because he wasn't born in England. He was turned down when he applied for a job at the Guardian, of Manchester, because he told the editor that he thought he wasn't much of a writer. His father wanted him to join him in the timber business, but he said that after one luncheon with him and his associates he decided he couldn't. "I couldn't laugh at their jokes and I thought, this is no good, this is a world I could never belong to," he said. "My father was very disappointed."
After that, he considered law. He dined at the law temples, as he said he was supposed to, but "I never did the exam; I never opened a law book, because then I was offered a job in Oxford to teach philosophy. That's the end of my story."
It was, of course, the beginning of his story. He became a lecturer in philosophy at New College in 1932, and, a few years later, it was in his rooms at All Souls College, that a circle of the leading analytic philosophers of the day gathered to hold regular meetings. They included J.L. Austin, A.J. Ayer, Stuart Hampshire, Donald MacKinnon, and Donald Macnabb.
World War II pulled him out of the ivory tower. He was sent first to New York, where he worked for the British Information Service, and then to Washington, where his assignment was to report back weekly to London on the mood of wartime America. His brilliant dispatches soon came to the attention of Churchill, who invited him to lunch. There were a number of missed signals in the conversation at 10 Downing Street that day, because, as it turned out, the invitation to Isaiah Berlin had found its way instead to Irving Berlin.
Sir Isaiah was sent to the British Embassy in Moscow just after the war. It was his first visit to Russia since he left with his family and it was to be a visit, he remembered, that "permanently changed my outlook." Warned that he would not be able to speak with anyone but officials assigned to him by the communist regime, he wrote that he was able to meet a number of Russian writers, "at least two among them persons of outstanding genius." They were Boris Pasternak and Anna Akhmatova. To each of them he brought news of the outside world. He later wrote in his essay "Meetings With Russian Writers" that "it was like speaking to the victims of a shipwreck on a desert island, cut off for decades from civilization."
Fifty years later, he explained that what had so deeply moved him was "the fact that these people preserved their integrity, completely unflawed, through a miserable regime." He recalled them as people of great personal sweetness, moral integrity, even nobility. "I was struck," he said, "by the possibility of heroic behavior on the part of highly civilized, highly intelligent people of great sensibility."
Anna Akhmatova was under constant surveillance and paid heavily for her meeting with Berlin. The very next day, the Soviet authorities stepped up their harassment of her, so much so that some years later, when she visited Sir Isaiah in Oxford, she solemnly informed him of a terrible secret that had taken hold of her. He wrote that Akhmatova told him that "she and I -- inadvertently, by the mere fact of our meeting -- had started the Cold War and thereby changed the history of mankind. She meant this quite literally."
By the time he returned to Oxford after the war, Sir Isaiah had lost interest in the kind of analytic philosophy that had preoccupied him during the thirties. To him, philosophy had come to seem sterile, disconnected from history and human lives. He said it was the work of the Russian philosopher and revolutionary Alexander Herzen that set him off on a new direction, the study of the history of social and political ideas. He said that when he picked up his autobiography, "My Past and Thoughts" he thought of Herzen as "some kind of boring writer with a beard of the mid 19th-century. But, he said, "it was one of the best books ever written by a human being. I was hooked."
The years from 1947 to 1958 were tremendously productive, years of writing and lecturing in Oxford, London, and Washington, and at such American universities as Harvard, Princeton, Bryn Mawr, and Chicago. Some of those lectures and essays were later included in his collections. He also published translations of Turgenev's "First Love" and "A Month in the Country."
The theme that runs throughout his work is his concern with liberty and the dignity of human beings, and he sought to emphasize that at all times, difficult, even tragic, tradeoffs had to be made. It was his view that man must forever choose among incommensurable and often incompatible values, that equality, for example, must at times be sacrificed to liberty. He told the philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo in a conversation that was published as a book, "Conversations with Isaiah Berlin" (1992), "if you have maximum liberty, then the strong can destroy the weak, and if you have absolute equality, you cannot have absolute liberty, because you have to coerce the powerful ... if they are not to devour the poor and the meek. ... Total liberty can be dreadful, total equality can be equally frightful."
In "Two Concepts of Liberty," Sir Isaiah said that it is the question of who establishes the rules of positive liberty that is of crucial importance. "Paternalism is despotic," he wrote. "I may, in my bitter longing for status, prefer to be bullied and misgoverned by some member of my own race or social class, by whom I am, nevertheless, recognized as a man and a rival -- that is as an equal -- to being well and tolerantly treated by someone from some higher and remoter group." He added: "Although I may not get 'negative' liberty at the hands of the members of my own society, yet they are members of my own group; they understand me, as I understand them; and this understanding creates within me the sense of being somebody in the world."
Sir Isaiah insisted that there could be no single all-embracing solution to the central problems of society. He wrote: "Any study of society shows that every solution creates a new situation which breeds its own new needs and problems, new demands." In "The Pursuit of the Ideal," he suggested that "Utopias have their value -- nothing so wonderfully expands the imaginative horizons of human potentialities -- but as guides to conduct they can prove literally fatal."
He wrote that the idea of a single solution "turns out to be an illusion; and a very dangerous one. For if one really believes that such a solution is possible, then surely no cost would be too high to obtain it: to make mankind just and happy and creative and harmonious forever -- what could be too high a price to pay for that? To make such an omelette, there is surely no limit to the number of eggs that should be broken -- that was the fate of Lenin, of Trotsky, of Mao, and for all I know of Pol Pot."
Although Sir Isaiah had the gift for saying in 90 pages what it took others 900 pages to say less well, colleagues remembered that it took some time for him to come to grips with a nagging feeling that he was a fraud because he had not produced a weighty book-length philosophical work. "I never had it in me to do a great masterpiece on some big subject," Sir Isaiah said without apparent regret as he looked back over his life. "There was a subject on which I had views. Romanticism. The Romantics made a greater difference to us than anything else since the Renaissance, more than Marx, more than Freud. Until the Romantics came along, there was only one answer to any question. Truth was one; error was many. You might not know it, you may be too benighted to find it, but there must be one answer. The Romantics said the same question can have more than one answer. The Romantics were the first to say the answer was not something built into the universe."
Sir Isaiah did write and lecture extensively on Romanticism. He was also preoccupied with cultural nationalism, a concept that he felt was deeply misunderstood and overlooked during the 19th century with its appeal to universalism as a legacy of the Enlightenment. Hegel, he said, once wrote that "freedom consists in being at home." Everyone, he believed, needed to belong to a group. He wrote about Johann Gottfried Herder, the German philosopher and poet, who convinced him of the basic need of man to be part of a particular human community with its own traditions, language, art, and imagination to shape his emotional and physical development.
Yet he said that Herder believed that if people were allowed to fulfill their yearning to belong, nations could live peacefully, side by side. "I'm afraid not," he concluded. "Perhaps in the 18th century you could believe that." Although he believed in the power of ideas, he said he had no solution for the excesses of nationalism. "I have no idea," he said, "how one stops one group, one race, from hating another. The hatred between human groups has never been cured, except by time."
From Schiller he borrowed the metaphor of the 'bent twig,' that was bound to snap if a society is oppressed or humiliated. And from Kant he took the title of his 1990 collection "The Crooked Timber of Humanity," ("Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made") to suggest that the Utopian notion of one big answer that is knowable and self-contained must always be fallacious because it does not take into account the cultural pluralism and conflicting values that are part of "the crooked timber of humanity."
Sir Isaiah's fervent Zionism derived from his experience as much as from his philosophy. "I can tell you why I'm a Zionist," he said in a conversation in his 87th year. "Not because the Lord offered us the Holy Land as some people, religious Jews, believe. My reason for being a Zionist has nothing to do with preserving Jewish culture, Jewish values, wonderful things done by Jews. But the price is too high, the martyrdom too long. And if I were asked, 'Do you want to preserve this culture at all costs?' I'm not sure that I would say yes, because you can't condemn people to permanent persecution. Of course assimilation might be a quite good thing, but it doesn't work. Never has worked, never will. There isn't a Jew in the world known to me who somewhere inside them do not have a tiny drop of uneasiness vis-a-vis THEM, the majority among whom they live. They may be very friendly, they may be entirely happy, but one has to behave particularly well, because if they don't behave well THEY won't like us."
When it was suggested to him in a conversation in 1996 that he was surely the exception, that he had been knighted; awarded the Order of Merit, Britain's highest honor for intellectual achievement; that he was a renowned and beloved Oxford scholar, a president of the British Academy; that he had been saluted, cherished, and accepted with pride in England, the recipient of innumerable honorary degrees, he had an immediate response: "Nevertheless, I'm not an Englishman, and if I behave badly ... ."
In his scholarly work, Sir Isaiah had traced the origins of Zionism in a profile of the 19th century German-Jewish revolutionary Moses Hess, one of his many portraits of political philosophers. Often, though, he was drawn to his opposites, like Karl Marx, the subject of his first book in 1939, and Joseph de Maistre, a French philosopher of the Napoleonic age whom he regarded as a proto-fascist. Michael Ignatieff, Sir Isaiah's biographer, said: "He is liberalism's greatest elucidator of the anti-liberal. ... He is always drawn to his opponents. Here is a liberal, balanced, amusing, witty man drawn to lonely, eccentric, crazed characters. It is said he is a rationalist who visits the irrational by day and comes back to the rational stockade at night."
A critic of the concept of historical inevitability, Sir Isaiah believed that the "great man" can bring about significant historical change. He saw Franklin D. Roosevelt as an example of such a man, and wrote of him: "He was absolutely fearless ... one of the few statesmen in the twentieth century or any other century who seemed to have no fear at all of the future." Another was Chaim Weizmann, the scientist and statesman who became the first president of Israel. Weizmann, he wrote, "committed none of those enormities for which men of action, and later their biographers, claim justification on the ground of what is called raison d'etat. ... Weizmann, despite his reputation as a master of realpolitik, forged no telegrams, massacred no minorities, executed and incarcerated no political opponents."
With the exception of his wartime diplomatic service and a number of visiting professorships, Sir Isaiah was associated with Oxford all his life. He began his career in 1932 there as a lecturer in philosophy at New College and spent seven years as a fellow of All Souls College. He was said to be very conscious that he was the first Jew to hold such a position at Oxford. From 1957 to 1967, Sir Isaiah held the prestigious Chichele Chair in Social and Political Theory. As the first president of Wolfson College from 1966 to 1975, he was instrumental in attracting a strong faculty to a new school at Oxford.
In the 1950s, he fell in love with Aline de Gunzbourg, a Frenchwoman who is the descendant of a noble Russian family. They were married in 1956 and enjoyed more than 40 years of what friends say was a particularly felicitous life together. She and her three sons from previous marriages, Michel Strauss and Peter Halban of London and Philippe Halban of Geneva, survive him.
No one who knew Sir Isaiah could remember him without remarking on his love of music and the long distances he traveled to hear concerts. He was particularly devoted to opera, an affection he attributed to his mother, who he said was a very good amateur who sang arias from all the great operas. He wrote about Verdi, numbered among his friends some of the leading musicians, and served on the board of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.
Sir Isaiah radiated well-being. "He gives everybody the unforgettable feeling of what it's like to be well in your own skin, of what a sense of health one derives from the intellectual life," his biographer, Ignatieff said in 1996.
He was also a man of great equanimity, even when talking about his own death. "I don't mind death," he said, "I'm not afraid of it. I'm afraid of dying for it could be painful. But I find death a nuisance; I object to it. I'd rather it didn't happen. ... I'm terribly curious. I'd like to live forever."